Tiny Croick Church is one of Scotland’s most remote kirks, sitting at the end of a 10-mile long single track road that winds west from Bonar Bridge, through the sparsely populated valley of Strathcarron.
Designed by Thomas Telford, it was just one dozens of small churches constructed in the Highlands during the early 19th century to provide remote parishes with places to worship. Known as parliamentary churches or ‘Telford Kirks’ they were funded by the government and built between 1823 and 1830.
Whitewashed Croick Church dates from 1827 and, while simple, some might say austere in its architectural style, it occupies a picturesque spot in the lonely glen. That, however, is not its most significant claim to fame for it was central to one of the most of infamous episodes of the Highland Clearances.
In May 1845, 18 families – some 90 people in all – were forcibly evicted from their land in Glencalvie to make way for sheep. Homeless and salvaging only what possessions they could carry, they sought refuge at Croick, 80 of them camping out in a makeshift tent erected in the graveyard.
During their enforced stay, some scratched messages into the eastern window of the building, leaving their names and brief messages – ‘The Glencalvie tenants resided here May 24 1845‘, ‘Glencalvie residents residing here’ and ‘Glencalvie people the wicked generation’ among them.
While large scale land clearances in the Highlands had been going on since 1750, largely unnoticed or ignored by the rest of the UK, the events at Glencalvie attracted the attention of The Times newspaper, a reporter despatched north to expose the scandal.
He wrote: ‘It was a most wretched spectacle to see these poor people march out of the glen in a body, with two or three carts filled with children, many of them mere infants.
‘A fire was kindled in the churchyard, around which the poor children clustered. Two cradles, with infants in them, were placed close to the fire and sheltered round by the dejected looking mothers.’
On May 25, the tenants were compensated for their stock and, with a little money in their pockets, left the glen in search of a new life.
There remains, however, some debate over how genuine the scratched names and messages are. They are written in English while The Times reporter recorded that he was unable to converse with the displaced tenants as they spoke only Gaelic (English was, however, being taught at the local school). And while recording the upheaval of 1845, the messages also appear to refer to events that occurred in later years (these, could of course, have been added later – like the one that records another local clearance at Greenyard in March 1854). Finally, the families sheltered in the church yard, rather than the church itself, believing that would be considered desecration – yet they were content to effectively vandalise the window.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the messages both record and offer a fascinating insight into this brutal period of the glen’s history. The church is left unlocked for visitors and, while the window has been covered inside and out to protect the scratches, the messages remain legible.
Inside the church, boards display both the messages and The Times article, alongside a little plan of the church and a list of ministers posted here.